Updated: Nov 19, 2021
George Washington was the almost mythical military leader of the successful American Revolution of the thirteen colonies against the British, and became the first President of the newly-formed United States of America. He was a man of towering physique, moral turpitude and extraordinary leadership capabilities.
Washington was the prime example of “command presence”, that essence of leadership that lets you know who is in charge as soon as you enter a room. As defined by Max J. Harnish, command presence “…is essentially your ability to project your position as one of authority in a professional sense, to others in your environment…”. This was one of his qualities that made men like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette defer to him. His command presence came not only from his physical presentation but also from what people knew of his belief system. It is interesting that as a young man he wrote his 100 “Rules for Civility'', a compendium of basic courtesies that every person (especially gentlemen) should strive to implement. I won’t dive into these rules at this time but promise to in the future.
In studying George Washington as a hobby, and working in ISO 9001 for more than thirty years as a living, it strikes me that he used some of the concepts and requirements of ISO 9001 as the basis for his leadership. It is unlikely that he had seen ISO 9001 in his time (even the earlier drafts), but it is fun to take what we know of Washington’s belief system and compare that to the concepts and requirements of the Standard. In the following handful of examples, I will present a quotation from the first President, present a requirement from the Standard that I believe reflects (or supports) Washington’s stand, and then provide some discussion on how I think both apply together.
Washington led the Continental Army under extremely trying circumstances for a leader. First, the colonials were taking on the superpower of the day, the British Empire. Second, he was forced to coalesce a rag-tag bunch of volunteers formed of a large number of independent militias coming from a disorganized collection of thirteen sovereign states. Third, his army operated with minimal supplies, virtually no pay for the troops and was dependent on these citizen-farmers who had overwhelming responsibilities of their own at home.
It is considerably easier trying to run a company in an open market, with hand-picked employees working with adequate resources. Certainly, if Washington could beat the British considering his challenges, we should be able to successfully manage our enterprises. How did he do it? How did he get this rag-tag army to be successful? While he definitely led a “forlorn hope” at times, he didn’t get into this American Revolution with the intent to get beat (which he did – a lot). He knew that he had to form his army around the basic principle of freeing the colonies from the yoke of British oppression; his “policy statement”. He consistently communicated his mission to his troops and made them aware of his own commitment. He encamped with them, even suffering through the winter at Valley Forge with his army. He worked long hours, only returning home to Mount Vernon once in more than eight years. He circulated amongst the army on horseback, even riding up and down the line on its Christmas Eve march to Trenton in a freezing blizzard.
Compared to Washington’s environment and what he did, it should be easy for the company owner to manage the enterprise on-site, spend some time with the off-shifts, and actively participate in the Gemba walks.
0.3 Process Approach - 0.3.1 General
Washington’s existence was centered around managing very complex processes. These included:
Managing a large commercial enterprise based in Mount Vernon. This enterprise included farming, fishing, transportation and real estate management out as far as the Ohio Valley.
Executing the military aspect of the American Revolution within the constraints and restraints described above.
Providing leadership to the Continental Congress in developing the Constitution of the United States of America.
He could not have successfully accomplished these projects without having processes. His farming operation at Mount Vernon was highly-organized with several smaller organizations (departments) having assigned activities. He structured the Continental Army to address severe logistics problems (lack of footwear at Valley Forge). His strict adherence to parliamentary procedures kept the Congress from turning into a continual catfight (the “Connecticut Compromise”).
Our own enterprises naturally function as a series of processes that should effectively interact with each other to accomplish certain objectives. We should accept that when things aren’t going right, some individual process must be ineffective, some interaction from one process to another is broken, or there is not consistent understanding of management intent amongst the process owners. A successful business owner will insist on a full understanding of the processes and interactions within the organization.
During the second Battle of Trenton, Washington’s Continental Army was in trouble. They had bit off more than they could chew following the successful capture of Trenton on Christmas the week before. The British had now backed up Washington’s army behind Assunpink Creek to the north and a swamp to the south. It was anticipated that the next morning would see the annihilation of the Continental Army. That night, General Washington convened his officers and allowed them to figure out how to get them all out of this mess. He sat in the back of the room as his staff came up with a plan to deceive the British with a fake encampment while the army evacuated overnight across the now-frozen swamp. Not only did this plan devised by his officers successfully evacuate the army, the next day the British army was humiliated by Washington at their headquarters in Princeton, thus ending the fighting for the winter.
Build a team of individuals with specific, identified talents. Indoctrinate that team with your vision, goals and objectives. Have confidence that this team will be able to devise the processes and activities necessary for your organization to achieve success. Get out of the way and allow your team to do its job.
5.1 Leadership & Commitment - 5 Leadership - 5.1.1 General
George Washington, as farmer/businessman, military leader or President, never failed to take responsibility for his own failings. As a 21-year old Major, he was sent by Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia to the Ohio Valley (now Pittsburgh) with the aim of dislodging the French from the area. After a series of skirmishes, the young Washington and four hundred soldiers were surrounded at Fort Necessity and, after a withering bombardment, Washington surrendered. On his release by the French and his return to Virginia, Washington presented his report to the Governor and accepted full responsibility for the humiliating defeat, expecting to have his commission taken from him. Instead, he received a vote of thanks from the House of Burgesses and Dinwiddie blamed the defeat not on Washington, but on poor supply and the refusal of aid by the other colonies.
If the processes of your organization don’t work, if the company performance is not adequate, if your customers are dissatisfied, as the boss it’s your fault. Even Dr. W. Edwards Deming, the guru of American and Japanese quality in the 1960’s, stated that 80% of the failures of an organization are the fault of management. Accepting accountability may mean that more resources have to be provided to your team. Failure to accomplish objectives may mean that the wrong priorities have been established by you. The failures of the team to satisfy the customer may mean that you are not allowing your personnel to do what they tell you has to be done. In any case, accept that you are responsible and that the necessary changes have to come from you.
These comparisons between the leadership demonstrated by George Washington and ISO 9001 bring me to two possible conclusions. The first is that George Washington was a man way ahead of his time in his thinking. I’ll buy that. The second conclusion is that ISO 9001 reflects some basic tenets of organizational leadership and management that stand the test of time. In either case, I am glad that I am such a fan of the man and such a believer in the concepts of the Standard.
About the Author
Michael Enders | Management Partner
Michael has been working in the quality management, standard implementation, internal auditing, and cybersecurity sector of organizations for over 35+ years. He continues to lead the MSI team, garnering fresh and traditional techniques to better aid organizations around the nation. The passion for Michael's line of work far exceeds just documentation, he enjoys reading and writing dynamic excerpts (Ex. George Washington & ISO 9001).